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Home & garden.

5 October 2021

How to grow lilies

Lilies are easy summer-flowering bulbs for pots and borders. Discover our best lily varieties and tips for how to grow them
CT
Ceri Thomas
Lilies

Lilies are romantic, showy flowers that fill our borders with glamour in midsummer. Intensive breeding has created lilies of all shapes and sizes, so Which? Gardening magazine trialled a range of different types to find the best.


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Key facts

Plant type Bulb

Position Full sun or partial shade 

Soil Any well-drained soil

How to grow lilies: month by month

January
February
March
April
May
June


PLANT
PLANT

FLOWERING
July
August
September
October
November
December
FLOWERING
FLOWERING

CUT BACK


Best lily varieties

Which members can log in now to see the full results and which are our Best Buy varieties. If you're not a member, join Which? to get instant access.

Best Buy lilies for pots
What it looks like
Variety name
Height
45cm
This Asiatic lily stood out for the huge number of flowers it produced: up to 10 per stem, with four flowers open at one time. It was one of the earliest to flower in mid-June and one of the longest lasting too, as the last bud opened in mid-July. The healthy plants grew well, with nicely shaped foliage that filled out the pot. It took just three bulbs to create an impressive and colourful display. Peak flowering: End of Jun
What it looks like
Variety name
Height
45cm
We loved the dark ruby colour of this variety, which contrasts beautifully with the pale carpel in the centre of the flower. They flowered for three weeks and, although there were usually only two flowers open at a time, each stem produced six flowers over the weeks. Coupled with the well-shaped and plentiful leaves, these bulbs created an elegant display ideally suited to pots. Peak flowering: End of Jun
What it looks like
Variety name
Height
35cm
This diminutive lily is easy to find in garden centres and well worth adding to your shopping basket for its pretty flowers that bloom for up to three weeks. It’s more compact than our other two Asiatic lily Best Buys, so you might need more bulbs to fill your pot. But it has an attractive shape and the stems flowered uniformly, with up to four of its five cheerful orange blooms open at the same time. Peak flowering: Start of Jul
What it looks like
Variety name
Height
54cm
Many of the compact oriental lilies tend to be shades of pink and white, so the bold yellow stripe on this white flower makes this variety really eye-catching. The plants are fairly tall and wide, with attractive foliage, and are topped with six fragrant flowers per stem, that are up to 20cm wide. With up to four flowers in bloom at a time, they looked fantastic in a pot for up to three weeks. Peak flowering: Start of Jul
What it looks like
Variety name
Height
45cm
Most of our Best Buys flowered for a long time, but this one was only in flower for a week. Even so, it had such a beautiful pure-white flower and wonderful, strong scent that it blew us away. It grew into a well-shaped plant that was perfectly suited to being grown in a pot. It was later to flower than most others, opening four of its five blooms in the first week of August. Peak flowering: Start of Aug
Best Buy double lilies
What it looks like
Variety name
Height 
70cm
This is a very pretty pollen-free double lily with candy-pink petals edged with white, and speckled with a darker pink. It started flowering in early July and made an impressive display with many blooms open at once and, unusually for a double, had a distinct sweet fragrance. It managed to keep flowering for four weeks in the very hot sun. Lily beetles didn’t find it that attractive, and it remained pest and disease-free for the whole summer. Peak flowering: Jul
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
75cm
The petals of this variety were gently curved, which gave them a traditional look that would be ideal for a cottage-garden border. The candy-pink colour, softly striped with green, was also very attractive. The flowers lasted for five weeks in the scorching sun during July and into early August, and were neatly spaced on the stem to give a lovely display and a faint, sweet scent. This variety was passed over by lily beetles and wasn’t affected by any other pests and diseases. Peak flowering: Jul-Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
70cm
The strong, pollen-free, tiered petals of this variety made the blooms look almost like waterlilies, and they stood out from the softer shapes of the other varieties. The white-edged, dark pink petals were very eye-catching and lasted for six weeks from late July into August, despite the hot weather. Lily beetles didn’t seem attracted to this variety, so it avoided most damage and didn’t succumb to any other pests or diseases. Peak flowering: Jul-Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
80cm
Not quite pure white, but gently flushed with pink, with the occasional stamen, the double flowers of this variety looked subtle and classy. The blooms were tightly spaced on the stem, making a striking display and they were also slightly scented. This variety didn’t start flowering until the end of July but then kept going for four weeks. It wasn’t bothered by lily beetles and was unaffected by any other pests or diseases. Peak flowering: Jul-Aug
Best Buy tree lilies
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
145cm
In the second year of the trial, this variety produced one of the highest numbers of flowers of all the varieties on test. There were more than 20 flowers covering the top half of each of the nine stems. Each flower is dark pink with a green centre, and their recurved petals are similar to martagon lilies, but with much larger flowers. They weren’t as highly scented as other varieties, but it’s a great option for the back of a border. Peak flowering: Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
153cm
Available since the 1990s, this variety was the first tree lily hybrid. It’s still one of the best, with huge bright yellow trumpet-shaped blooms measuring 22cm wide. The original seven bulbs put up multiple stems, with 16 stems appearing in the second year, each holding six or seven flowers. These were at their best for three weeks and pumped out a heady scent, making this variety a clear Best Buy. Peak flowering: Late Jul-early Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
173 cm
Red tree lilies are very rare and this 2016 introduction was said to be the first true-red variety. The 20cm-wide flowers have reflexed petals held on tall stems, which have a dark-purple tint. There were around 17 flowers on each of the nine stems and it flowered for a staggering six weeks. This made it stand out in the border, but we also liked the strong, fragrant scent and its glossy, healthy-looking leaves. Peak flowering: Late Jul-early Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
215cm
This lily is a standout on several counts. It was the tallest we tried and it had one of the best scents, which was powerful and highly attractive. It leaned very slightly and needed to be staked in its first year, but by the second year the shoots were strong enough to support themselves. It flowered for six weeks in total and at its peak there were nine well-placed flowers on each of its seven stems. Peak flowering: Jul
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
186cm
Standing at close to two metres, this variety was one of the tallest varieties in our trial and produced plenty of stems. By the second year, seven bulbs put up 12 flowering shoots. The flowers were held on the top metre of the stem, allowing room for around 17 flowers, which gently bent forward. It’s worth staking this variety in its first year, but by its second year it held itself fairly upright, albeit with a slight lean. Peak flowering: Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
168cm
This variety’s maroon and cream colours and martagon lily shape give it an exotic feel. It’s quite tall, reaching 168cm, with the flowers held in the top 50cm. It leaned forwards slightly under the weight of the flowers, but not enough to need staking. There were an impressive 19 or so flowers on each of the seven stems, which were at their best for four weeks and had a lighter fragrance than other varieties on test. Peak flowering: Late Jul-early Aug
What it looks like
Variety name
Height x spread
185cm
This stood out as one of the best varieties. We loved the vibrant, bright yellow colour of the large flowers and the powerful, sweet perfume. It was one of the earliest to flower and at its peak had around seven flowers open at once on each of the seven stems. The plants were very tall at 185cm and the top third of the stem held the flowers. They held themselves very upright, so you won’t need to stake them. Peak flowering: Jul

How we test lilies

We planted the bulbs in the ground in spring and then we recorded their progress throughout the summer, keeping records of: how well they flowered, their eventual size, their colour, if they had scent, whether they produce pollen stamens, and if any had trouble with pests or diseases.

Types of lilies

Asiatic lilies are short varieties, up to about one metre tall, and have upward-facing flowers with no fragrance. They come in a wide range of colours and bloom early in the summer, usually from mid-June into July.

Oriental lilies bloom from mid to late summer and have large, outward-facing flowers that open wide and have a strong fragrance. They tend to be taller, although recent breeding has produced many varieties of dwarf oriental lily.

Tree lilies are hybrids of trumpet and oriental lilies, and this cross of genes makes them extremely vigorous. They make oriental lilies look small in comparison and can grow to two metres or more, but rarely need staking. Once established, bulbs can throw up more than one stem. From mid-July to mid-August, they’re covered in flowers with large trumpets and a sweet fragrance, bearing the best traits of their parents. Crucially, they’re more tolerant of limy soils than other lilies, meaning they will be at home in almost any garden. 

Double lilies The lack of pollen stamens and an increased number of petals mean double lilies can look very different structurally to single lilies and can give a much bolder, more modern feel to a border. Most cat owners exclude lilies from their garden as lily pollen is poisonous to cats. However, many double lilies are pollen-free so may offer a way to safely introduce these showy flowers into borders without putting cats at risk. The lack of pollen may also help people who have hay fever and flower arrangers who dislike how it can stain when brushed off the flowers

Planting

Buy the largest bulbs you can to give good-sized plants in the first year. Check any bulbs you buy are free from damage. A small amount of blue mould is fine and bulbs can still be planted, but excessively mouldy bulbs should be avoided. 

Choose firm, large bulbs with intact outer scales and no signs of bruising. Most lilies need to be planted in the spring, so order in good time. Bulbs can dry up and fail to flower if stored too long. 

You can plant in the autumn or early spring, but it’s better to plant in spring, especially if your soil tends to stay wet over winter.

In the ground, choose a spot with well-drained soil. It helps if the bulbs themselves are in shade but the leaves and flowers are in full sun. Dig in some garden compost and plant the bulbs 15cm deep, leaving 15-30cm between them. Mulch the area with more compost to retain moisture and keep down weeds.

In pots, plant the bulbs into deep containers, leaving plenty of space for the roots and 15cm above the bulb to the surface of the compost. Use a Best Buy compost for containers (or ericaceous compost for oriental lilies) and add granules of a controlled-release fertiliser

Caring for your plants

In the ground

Water in dry spells and weed around your plants.

We didn’t stake our lilies and found that most leaned slightly but didn’t fall over by the second year. If you want them to stand bolt upright, then stake them before they start to bloom, placing a cane close to, but not through, the bulb.

Remove seedheads once the lilies have finished flowering to allow the plant to put the maximum energy into the bulb for next year’s flowers.

Wait until stems are brown and hollow before cutting them down.

In pots

If you’re growing lilies in pots, place them in full sun and ensure the compost is moist at all times, but not wet. Feed with a liquid fertiliser, such as tomato feed, every fortnight during summer unless you’ve chosen to use a controlled-release feed at planting time. 

Repot bulbs in the autumn when the foliage dies down, or transfer them to the garden. To overwinter in containers, place in a cool but frost-free, airy place.

Common growing problems

Lily beetles

Lily beetles love to feast on lily leaves, both as larvae and adults. The adults are bright red and around 8mm long. They are easy to spot on the plants but tricky to catch, as when they sense movement nearby they drop on to the soil on their backs, showing only their black underside. They lay eggs on the underside of leaves and the young larvae eat the leaves from the lower surface upwards. Pick off the adults by hand, laying something light-coloured under the plants so you can spot them when they fall. Larvae can be wiped off the plants, but wear gloves. You can spray with Best Buy Westland Resolva Bug Killer.

Read more about lily beetles

Slugs and snails

Slugs and snails will eat the newly emerging shoots and the leaves, so apply ferric-phosphate slug pellets at the stated rate and remove any slugs and snails you find.

Read more about slugs and snails